How often does society praise and laud strong men yet reject and vilify and run scared and confused from bold, intelligent and beautiful women? How frequently do we demand the stereotype of excelling in a single field or ouvre alone, Jacks and Jills of all trades unnerving and unsettling us? All of which makes the artist, designer, teacher, counsellor, mother and more than anything woman, Carolyn Cowan not just indispensable but essential. What is most important to her? “This very moment.”
PP. What characteristics describe you best?
CC. Creative, powerful, strong, charismatic, direct, funny, scary, interesting, intriguing and beautiful.
PP. Why scary?
CC. A lot of people find me scary because they feel transparent. Perhaps because I am nearly six foot tall and I’ve got white hair. I am not particularly afraid of much. I am afraid of financial insecurity but I am not really afraid from people. I’ve been through a lot in my life.
When people feel naked they are uncomfortable. I photograph nudes and sometimes that makes me scary. They believe I can see through them. As a woman I am also comfortable with my strengths. And that could make people feel scared as well.
PP. Why do you photograph naked people?
CC. Today we are so defined by the exterior, labels and what we wear. Clothes hide and mask who we really are. But if you take it away we are nothing else but ourselves. I am fascinated by bodies, regardless of one being skinny, not skinny, fat, obese, wrinkled, aged or young. There is beauty in absolutely everything, even in a nude body, which is not perfect as none of us are. There is a beauty in human vulnerability. And I can make people take their clothes off in a minute.
PP. How? I always thought that the English are not the easiest when it comes to undressing.
CC. You might think so but not the people I usually work with. A lot of the English are extremely kinky.
I don’t make judgments about the way people look. I rather focus on their uniqueness and say: Your body is all pierced and tattooed, how fabulous. You are nine months pregnant and feel like a boat. Great, let’s have a look. You are 95 years old and covered in wrinkles, fantastic. Some people are shyer than others of course but if there are certain parts of their bodies they don’t wish to expose like nipples, well there are still so many things one can do.
PP. What I admire about your photographs most is this extraordinary combination of lighting, composition and setting that makes your images look almost like paintings. Yes, you use a camera instead of a brush but still, for me you make paintings.
CC. When I was young I was sent to the most hideous place, a strict Catholic boarding school. I wasn’t a Catholic and because of that I was told every single day of my life I would burn in hell forever. So, I was totally isolated and started running away to London in hope I would find my father who would save me. One way to get out of the school was to attend art courses at the Victoria and Albert Museum. So art was my escape in some way. That was around 1975. Times were different then. I also had some dreadful experiences. Being molested, being attacked, abused – things that shouldn’t really happen to a young girl. It’s a long story but I am fine. Perhaps in my case I just needed to go through such experiences and learn about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance.
PP. And you use that in your work.
CC. All my life in some way or another I work with body whether I am a photographer, body painter, makeup artist, yoga teacher, drug and alcohol counsellor, fashion designer. It is always to do with a body and physical reality. When I take a picture of someone it is always about redemption, a way of liberation if you prefer. When I think of the National Portrait Gallery for example, I find it awful, all those portraits with red heads and freckles, pale, badly lit. I don’t see the point of making people look like freaks. Why? It is much more exciting to find this magical spark in a person sitting in the front of you and catch that moment of beauty.
PP. You also made a series of photographs with scarred women, whose bodies have survived traumas beyond one’s belief. And even there you managed to go beyond wounds and disfiguration in order to show those ladies in a stunning way, moving but still beautiful.
CC. The editor of She magazine decided that I should do this series. There was a woman who was run over by a truck across her pelvis. Once the accident happened her boyfriend left her and ever since nobody could see her body, except doctors. Oh and there was a very young girl with a lung transplant and a huge scar across her chest as well as a lady who had her breast cut off because of a cancer. These are serious traumas. Even so, I wanted to make them look magnificent, as they truly are. This was also about empowerment and confidence.
PP. You also run Devotion, a successful shop and online business.
CC. I started this business in 2004 after having an epiphany during a day-long meditation. It was a moment when I saw it all. I was working in the film industry and had two young children at the time. Also my husband was seriously ill with Hepatitis C and I just didn’t want to work any more in the film industry. So I started with Devotion and became a fashion designer as well. As I am aware of body shapes I wanted to make what you may call respectful dressing, flattering if you like.
PP. But why Devotion?
Devotion is really about love of God. I am an ex drug addict and alcoholic, now nearly 20 years sober. And this is where my journey started, out of darkness. Everything I have been trying to do in my life was about searching for light, whether dressing somebody or taking a picture of someone. It is always about light, transformation, alchemy.
CC. When I was a kid I sang in the choir and I loved it. What I didn’t love was that I was sent to this boarding school with sex abusive nuns, even a priest called Kissing Bandit. It was just horrible. I was there from the age of 11 to 16 and was running away to London whenever I could and having ugly experiences one really shouldn’t have. I was dysfunctional but that’s fine as it made me who I am. My father was also a fashion photographer who left when I was three and a half, never to come back. For some reason he fascinated me. I was obsessed, hoping he would rescue me from my life. I thought, if I could just find him everything would be fine. That was my fixation.
So I was running away in order to look for him while he was living in a Land Rover somewhere in a desert. He didn’t have idea that he had all these children. He really didn’t care. But one day he came back and I discovered where he was. I lied. I pretended I was somebody else and went to meet him. Of course he didn’t want to know about me, which was extremely painful. Then he died. He only came back because he was dying of a lung cancer. I switched off. I felt I made a huge mistake and got everything wrong.
At that time – whilst on the run from home again – I was living with a German musician who joined a punk band. The lead singer of the band was this staggeringly beautiful Italian woman Cristina Arcieri who allowed me to paint on her face. So I became a body painter. By the time I was 22 I was back on my own again and really wanted to be a makeup artist and a body painter. I sold my clothes in order to buy the ticket for Milan and got there with no money and this strange portfolio. Thinking that one must start from the top I knocked on the door of Italian Vogue and they booked me every day for five months. I don’t think this could happen these days.
PP. What happened after that?
CC. I came back to England and got my first job in the film industry working with Bryan Ferry. From then I worked on many pop videos: Rio by Duran Duran, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing, Queen’s I want to Break Free. It was a crazy time perfect for misbehaviour with drugs and alcohol floating around like water.
PP. How long did this hedonistic period last?
CC. By the time I was 28, which was 1988 I was hitting a point that wasn’t funny. It was the time when I was chain-smoking cigars as ordinary cigarettes weren’t strong enough and regardless of the amount of alcohol and drugs I was taking, nothing could kill my pain. I knew something had to change. In 1991 I went to Dublin for work, to do David Bowie’s makeup. The day before the photo shoot at five o’clock in the morning I got so drunk, hardly functioning. Two hours later I went to work. Bowie had one look at me and took me straight away to my first AA meeting. And from that day, the 31st July 1991, I haven’t touched anything, no smoking, drugs or alcohol. Of course the first three months I couldn’t sleep. It was hideous. But I knew I had to change and this was the only way, as religion just didn’t do it for me. When you are a strong woman, religion doesn’t make any sense. Embracing the change meant that I didn’t want to go back to my old work so I discovered photography. It was time to do something completely different. I met my husband and thought of India. I went to Ilford, who made films and asked them if they would sponsor me to go to India and take pictures of nomads. They said yes and gave me hundreds of rolls of film. So I bought a Hasselblad and found myself one day in India. Here I was with my husband and all these cameras and rolls of film thinking, I haven’t really thought this through, I actually don’t have a clue how to find a nomad.
Somehow we found ourselves in a bus on the way to a desert. We arrived at this camp where as it happens I met this prince whose father was the king of the area. I asked him if he could help me in finding nomads and he said yes. He gathered various shepherds all in full regalia, huge turbans and camel skin shoes and we went off. For three months it was just amazing. At that point I started to understand more about Hindu spirituality and Sikhism, just something else that was more to do with your karmic experience rather than a punishment. I preferred this idea of choosing your experiences and transformation, that you can have all your past and drama and that could be your mountain on which you can stand. Like the root of a tree which you become.
PP. Do you believe that people sometimes need to reach this point of no return in order to grow, change and be open to spirituality?
CC. I do. We are drowning in mediocrity, where so many people are numbing themselves. Unfortunately, this economic situation is good for numbing as nobody wants to face what is really happening. It is easier to get drunk, or stuffed with fast food. The amount of overweight people is staggering, people who are utterly oblivious. But I think, unless you hit something like depression, illness, death or addiction there is no change.
PP. What is important to you?
CC. This very moment. And of course change and transformation. And light. Light that came out of darkness. You have to recognise how bad, disgusting, repulsive, ghastly, hideous you also are as a person before you can stand up and say: now I know who I am! You have to be able to stand on the top of it rather than drown. The moment you jump of that metaphorical cliff into darkness you can always recognise other people who have done the same.
PP. How does it feel to be sober?
CC. Exhausting. It is not easy to be sober and conscious 24 hours a day. I wear myself out. I must learn some new techniques to shut myself up.
PP. So how do you chill out?
CC. I lay on a bad of nails [laughing]. I run. I love hot baths that can almost cook me. I watch films. If I could start from the scratch I would be a film director.
PP. What kind of films do you like?
CC. Oh I love that film You Kill Me. Have you seen that?
CC. Oh it’s wonderful. You must see it, very funny, very dark. I love beautifully crafted films. Sexy Beast, oh that is a fabulous film. And Bladerunner of course with that fabulous line: “If you could see the things my eyes have seen?” Oh my God, what is the name of that man who was married to Madonna?
PP. Guy Ritchie.
CC. Snatch. That is the film I was impressed by. Oh and Muriel’s Wedding. How great was that?
PP. “You are terrible” Carolyn (Muriel).
CC. And you are too Predrag. But you are also brilliant. What you do with your website is just wonderful, passion, energy and vitality with a spark of a soul. It is all about that.
PP. Thank you. You have a huge following. But how do people find about you?
CC. Some people wander to my shop by chance. Some people find an article in a magazine and travel from South Africa and some people write to me, a lot. Some find my yoga DVDs and I meet a lot of people because I teach meditation and chant. I also have people who come to my place every day to pray to Ganesha hanging on my wall. Some people just stop me on the street.
PP. You also teach Kundalini Yoga and sometimes in front of 1500 at once. How does that feel? Do you have a stage fright? Do they look at you as a Goddess?
CC. Oh, I love it. It’s fabulous. It happens in France every year. I go there with my Range Rover and sleep in the forest. I invite people for lunch every day to my tent, which they enjoy tremendously. Because I don’t offer this disgusting yoga diet which I would never eat, but delicious pasta, polenta, salads. Also I take my shop with me, so it’s perfect for the business.
PP. Where do you find the time for all this?
CC. I get up at 5:00 A.M. every morning and I run for one hour, well five times a week. Then I take my children to school and work until half past six. But you only have to do a tiny bit a day to achieve massive amounts. If you focus your mind and do what has to be done that day it always happens. Some of us can do a lot and I am sure you are one of those people as well.
PP. What would you do if you come across a complete stranger on the street who is lost, ready to jump from the cliff?
CC. First thing I would say is: Be careful, because if you kill yourself, you will have to come back and do it all over again. And that is a bugger. If you don’t deal with your own problems it will just come back again and again as some shitty experience. You might as well peel the onion now. One should celebrate one’s own darkness. When you hit the bottom, take it as hitting the mirror. It is a reflection of the divine. When you hit that darkest possible part, you disturb all the filth accumulated there for a long time but by that you also allow a small particle of light to hit the reflection of your perfection. It is like the analogy of a lotus.
The only reason the lotus is so beautiful is because its seed has landed in the shit. It feeds from the shit. Then comes longing when your emotions break. Within your pain is the breaking of the shell that increases your understanding, a process that changes you. After that is the creative force that drives us to come back again. It is the beginning of a shoot, a new plant. These are all the dramas that one needs to break through like the lotus through the water in order to reach the air. Then comes the bud, which is expression, followed by flowering and finally the thousand petal lotus, which we all aim for. When you hit the bad, it is the best place you can possible be because after that you can only come up.
PP. What is your biggest hope?
CC. That one day, all the women of the world will stand up and say: it’s enough! It is enough of this male-made shit destruction. If destruction could stop that would be my biggest dream. If people could only try to see things with their own eyes rather then be manipulated by TV, papers and media, it would be a lot more peaceful. And if there is more acceptance amongst ourselves it would be much calmer.
Text: © Predrag Pajdic, 10 January 2010
Images: © Carolyn Cowan